Thanks, Discovery

I’ve gotten out of the habit of posting here about the beginnings or endings of freelance gigs–I didn’t mark the start of my writing for the Disruptive Competition Project a year ago (in part because I wasn’t sure that site’s funding would get renewed for 2013), and I barely mentioned the conclusion of my work at CEA.

Discovery STS-135 badge

But since my sole outlet for the first few post-Post months was Discovery News, it seems worth observing that yesterday’s post about Google+ image-recognition marked the end of my contract with D News.

I have no hard or even bruised feelings about that. Discovery tried branching into personal-tech coverage by bringing me onboard, but we never developed an audience to justify the generous rate Discovery had offered me. (It could not have helped that for a while, I kept trying to shoehorn in wonky policy stories.) Instead of asking me to linger on, still out of place, at a lower rate, management granted me my unconditional release.

Since my output at D News was cut back from five or six posts a month over 2012 to only two a month this year–while I’ve since added other clients–the financial hit is manageable.

Now I’m just appreciating my better moments there: for instance, playing with a goofy robotic ball, breaking news about car2go’s deal with D.C., legitimately using “free beer” in a headline, and being one of a minority of reviewers to call out the infuriating keyboard on Samsung’s Galaxy S III.

The roughly 500-word limit on Discovery’s posts helped me write more concisely after years of assuming I’d have 800 or more words to play with, while its practice of running large pictures atop each post pushed me to take better gadget photos.  And the site’s content-sharing deals led to my work being reproduced on Fox News and Mashable.

Finally, Discovery was a good name to throw in when requesting press passes–say, when I covered the Tweetup NASA organized for the last space-shuttle launch. My STS-135 media badge remains my favorite press credential ever.

Weekly output: Flash, Android tablets, SOPA, Microsoft stores, Metro

News flash: I haven’t been writing as often here. That’s a logical outcome of having more places willing to pay me to write, but at the same time I feel like I’m committing a blogging foul by letting this go dark for a week or two at a stretch. At the same time, I’ve realized that keeping up with my scattered output can’t be that easy for interested readers–I can’t always remember what I’ve written over the last two weeks.

(I point to my work on Twitter and my Facebook page, but good luck finding those links later on at either site.)

So I’m going to do a post each week wrapping up my work. That will ensure there’s something new here each week, and it will give me a spot to share some insights about how each post/article/Q&A/podcast/speech/interpretive dance/etc. came to be. (Credit for this idea and the structure I’m using goes to Brett Snyder’s Cranky Flier blog, which runs a “Cranky on the Web” post each Saturday noting where he’s written or been quoted.) Yes, the fact that this exercise may better promote my work and myself has not escaped my attention.

Nov. 15: “Fading Flash And Other Media Missteps,” CEA Tech Enthusiast (subscription required) CEA Digital Dialogue

A follow-up to an earlier post on Discovery News about Adobe’s decision to stop developing mobile versions of its Flash Player, in which I note some possible downsides of having to rely on a universe of apps for name-brand video on mobile devices and other non-computer gadgets.

Nov. 16:  “Why Android Tablets Can’t Catch A Break,” Discovery News

I’d meant to write this review of the Vizio Tablet earlier, but other events kept bumping it aside. The upside of that was that I could incorporate some extended observations of Vizio’s marketing and the broader state of the tablet market into the piece.

Nov. 18: “Online Piracy Act Is Copyright Overreach,” Roll Call

This is an updated version of a post I did for Tech Enthusiast two weeks earlier. CEA–no fan of the Stop Online Piracy Act–wanted to get the post a broader audience and sold Roll Call on running it. (CEA and I came to our dislikes of this foolish bill separately, but I don’t mind their efforts resulting in my first print appearance since April.)

Nov. 19: “A Store That’s The Apple of Microsoft’s Eye,” Discovery News

I trekked out to Tysons Corner to see Microsoft open its 14th retail store, the first anywhere along the Northeast Corridor. My first impression was probably yours: It’s a lot like Apple’s stores. My second: The Microsoft Store presents a tough critique of the PC business as we’ve known it.

Nov. 19: “How D.C.’s Metro Opened Up Its Data,” ReadWriteWeb

I started this post months ago; after my editor told me “no rush here,” I took advantage of a liberal deadline to over-report the piece. So, please, ask me an obscure question about Metro, transit-data feeds or mapping applications.

Updated 1/31/2012 with links to non-paywalled versions of the Tech Enthusiast links.

Discovering iCloud

I’m no longer a full-time gentleman of leisure: I’ll be writing two blog posts a week for Discovery News. My assignment is to give an out-of-the-weeds take on tech topics, explaining what they might mean to you and if they deserve a purchase, a download or a sign-up.

(I’m doing this on a freelance basis, so Discovery won’t the only place to find my work. More on that as I know it.)

My first post for the Silver Spring firm is a look at Apple’s iCloud news. I wrote “news” instead of “service” because so much of iCloud remains open only to developers testing a beta version. Most of its features won’t ship until its iOS 5 mobile operating-system upgrade ships this fall; some will require extra work by third-party developers.

But Apple did give an exceptionally detailed presentation on this upcoming set of Web-based services at last week’s WWDC event (the iCloud show starts at about the 79th minute of Apple’s keynote video). And from that and subsequent writeups, two things jumped out at me: This service will be far more device- and app-specific than other cloud services, and it also seems to have left out Web access to your content.

That is, while Google Docs and Amazon’s Cloud Player, to name two competing cloud services, each require nothing more complicated than a Web browser through which you can edit a spreadsheet or play a song, Apple will make you run an app on your Mac, PC, iPhone or iPad to do those things. Its core strategy appears to involve replacing in-browser access with connected apps.

(No, Apple didn’t specifically say “we won’t let you get at your iCloud info in a browser.” But its unwillingness to mention iCloud Web apps in a nearly 40-minute introduction to the service should be as telling as its failure to note the addition of turn-by-turn navigation to the iPhone’s aging Maps program. The only hint of Web access came when Steve Jobs said iCloud’s e-mail would not include ads–but to omit a Web-mail interface would be a special sort of insanity. Update, 6/13, 2:38 p.m. Joshua Topolsky got Apple PR to confirm that it will retire all of the current MobileMe Web apps when that service closes on June 30, 2012, without any plans to replace them: “You will no longer be able to log in and check your mail through a browser, change calendar events, or edit contacts.” Update, 6/26, 2:31 p.m. Eleven days after Topolsky’s article, Apple posted a Q&A on the MobileMe-to-iCloud transition that promised Web access to iCloud’s e-mail, contacts and calendar services this fall. Left unanswered: How a company that prides itself on elegance as much as Apple does could make such a mess of its message.)

Apple’s service should work much better at the machine-to-cloud intersection, because it, unlike Google or Amazon, knows what software will be waiting there. The one part of iCloud that I could test, iTunes in the Cloud, worked just as advertised: It took only one tap on our iPad2 to download a song I’d bought in my Mac’s copy of iTunes to that tablet. Then I bought another song on the iPad’s version of iTunes; within 10 seconds, it was downloading on the Mac.

But if I’d wanted to listen to my iTunes collection on a friend’s computer or a work machine without downloading it at all, I’d be out of luck.

And what if your hardware inventory includes more than Macs, Windows PCs and iOS devices? What if there’s an Android phone or a Linux computer in the mix? What if you can’t install Apple’s software on your work PC? Computing life isn’t always as tidy as it might look in a Steve Jobs keynote or in an Apple Store.